Step up to the bar at the Hillside location of 575 Pizzeria and you’ll be met with 13 distinct beers on tap. The kegs come from smaller craft breweries in Portland, Ore., or from Denver, Colo. There’s no domestic Budweiser or Coors tap in sight.
You’ll find the same at Crush Wine Bar & Deli downtown, where beer-lovers can choose from among 14 craft beers on tap and dozens of bottled beers from breweries many drinkers don’t recognize. “We definitely try to find boutique stuff that’s off the radar,” says owner Brian Singleton. “Something that’s harder for people to find.”
Or stop at the now-legendary I Don’t Know Sports Bar & Grill on Sixth Street, which now boasts more than 250 different beers on tap – and that number is just a stepping stone in its quest to reach 300. Some are standards like Miller or Shiner Bock. But hundreds of them are unique wheat beers, stouts, porters and ales, including Southern Pecan Nut Brown Ale from Mississippi’s Lazy Magnolia Brewery. “Amarillo taste buds are definitely evolving,” says Micci Cole, IDK’s general manager. “A lot more people are willing to branch out and try something new.”
When Brian Kelleher opened the first 575 location on Civic Circle – the pizzeria was known as Basil Doc’s at the time – he wanted to offer more than just the usual big-brand macrobrews like Bud and Miller. “I like beer but I’ve never been a huge fan of domestics. To me, a Bud Light tends to taste the same on draft as it does in the bottle,” he says. “But there were only a couple of places in Amarillo that didn’t have domestics on tap.”
So when Kelleher installed his first six taps, none of the beers were big names. “We wanted it to be a differentiator, to give us a competitive advantage,” he says, believing that the restaurant’s hand-crafted pizza would match up well with beers from craft breweries, which are defined by the American Brewers Association as traditional, small (producing less than six million barrels a year), and independent (not owned or controlled by a mega-brewer). Kelleher says his first customers mostly ignored those taps. “At the beginning, the majority of beer we sold was Coors Light, out of the bottle.”
Things have changed. Kelleher says the demand for craft beers “has exploded” in Amarillo, especially among his customers. “These days, people come in asking for beers we don’t even have access to,” he says. “Our market has grown into it.”
Cole says a thousand new breweries open every year in the U.S., so the only limit to local beer-lovers is distribution and infrastructure. One of those craft breweries is at the Big Texan, where the brothers Bobby and Danny Lee have teamed up with brewmaster Tom Money to produce more than a dozen unique beers sold only at the legendary I-40 restaurant. “It’s a huge business,” Danny says of hand-crafted beers like Palo Duro Pale Ale, Rattlesnake IPA, and the new Sour Mother Pucker. Bobby says the Brewery is producing 80 gallons a day and has reached its limit, which is why an enlarged brewery has become a priority when the brothers discuss expansion. “We don’t dare try to produce any more than what we’re producing right now. Eighty gallons a day is way past the limit of what we’re set up to do.”
“I’ve seen a large demand of people branching out and trying a new beer,” says Jordan Lee, Danny’s son and a bartender at the Big Texan. “They’re willing to pay a little bit extra for greater flavor, a little more ABV – alcohol by volume – and they’re even starting to get interested in IBU,” which stands for International Bitterness Units, a measure of a beer’s bitterness. “[Beer] has become a great conversation-starter,” says Jordan.
575 Pizzeria It’s hard to tell if the crowds of people at 575 are there for the pizza or the beer. Most likely, it’s a little of both. The pizzeria’s original location on Civic Circle has six taps dedicated to craft beers, and the newer location on Hillside Road lets patrons choose from 13 beer taps. There’s not a domestic beer in sight – at least not on draft. Expect a good mix of light to dark beers, with a steady regular rotation plus a couple of taps that change out frequently. Once a week, 575 makes a new beer available on its popular New Tap Thursday, which also provides glassware branded with the beer. Taking pizza home? Then grab a gallon of your favorite tap-beer in 575’s “Braüler,” a stainless-steel version of the take-home Growler ($60 the first time, then much less for subsequent fill-ups).
The Big Texan Brewery People all over the country already know about the Big Texan and its 72-ounce steak. If brothers and co-owners Bobby and Danny Lee have any say in it, travelers will soon be arriving at this Amarillo landmark thirsty for its craft beers. Tourists from Australia, Austria and Germany have given the brews a thumbs up, and Danny says Amarillo patrons frequently take home their favorite varieties in to-go containers – from liters ($9.74) to 64-ounce “Growlers” ($28.15). “Football season and holiday parties are where we’ve seen the most growth with locals,” Bobby says. “They’ll get four or five Growlers for a Thanksgiving Day meal or to take to Christmas parties.” Arrange your own taste test by ordering The Big Texan’s 10-beer tasting flight, designed for a group of people. Only $13 brings a tray of its most popular beers in four-ounce glasses.
I Don’t Know Sports Bar & Grill For a brief period, General Manager Micci Cole says the 255 beers on tap at Amarillo’s I Don’t Know Sports Bar & Grill were the most in the United States. It’s since been bested by a newly opened beer garden in Raleigh, N.C., but IDK still has the most taps in Texas by far. “We’re trying to get as close as we can to 300,” says Cole. This craft beer paradise and TV-rich sports bar opened with plans to grow at a slow-but-steady pace. Now that it’s established a dedicated clientele, IDK doesn’t plan to remain a secret any longer. The parking lot has already been enlarged. Look for fresh signage, city-wide advertising, and other expansions in the coming months.
Texas Firehouse Sports Bar & Grill Locals love this sports bar for its hand-tossed gourmet pizzas, modern décor, walls of high-def televisions, and non-smoking atmosphere. But the commitment to beyond-the-beaten path brews may bring thirsty patrons back as much as anything else. It’s hard to miss the long row of beers on tap, from bigger names like Sam Adams and Dos Equis to specialty microbrews like Dogfish Head 90 Minutes IPA and Breckenridge Vanilla Porter. Keep an eye on the Firehouse’s Facebook page for regular rotating monthly specials to get $1.50 pints … and occasional holidays when certain microbrews are only a buck.
Long Wooden Spoon After successfully earning their state brewing license and meeting state and city regulations, Long Wooden Spoon Brewing is finally ready to begin selling their craft beers commercially. One way is through relationships with local establishments like 575 and IDK, which will soon begin offering LWS brews on tap. The other way is direct to the public – on Saturday afternoons, from noon until late in the evening, locals can stop by the brewery’s taproom in Western Business Park to enjoy a glass on-premises. Get to know owners Jared Read and Rick McElroy, and be sure to try LWS’ popular Sixth Street Wheat, Coffee Porter, or German-style Amarillo Sunrise Kölsch.
(Take) Home Brew
No local watering holes approve of drinking and driving, but several establishments allow you to take home your favorite craft beer. Both The Big Texan Brewery and 575 Pizzeria allow customers to take home their favorite tap beers in specialty containers. Meanwhile, Crush Wine Bar & Deli is able to special-order and retail all of its beer, including a variety of unique imports and a rotating list of hard-to-find specialty brews.
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by Jason Boyett
Jason is a journalist, copywriter, ghostwriter, and the author of more than a dozen books. His most recent is “12 World Religions: The Beliefs, Rituals, and Traditions of Humanity's Most Influential Faiths”, published by Zephyros Press. Learn more at jasonboyett.com.